This is one of the few sheltered harbours along the dangerous North Devon Coast; Bideford Bar, the sandbank at the estuary mouth, has wrecked many vessels.
Shipbuilding has always been important but other economic activity thrived along the river: timber & emigration, tobacco & pottery, lime production & gravel extraction, steamboats & tourism. Merchants were trading across the Bristol Channel to South Wales, and overseas to Ireland, Spain, France and the Americas.
Raiders from Ireland came in longships, pirates occupied Lundy, Sir Richard Grenville left to combat the Spanish. Sailors from the Torridge founded the first colony in North America and much wealth came from importing tobacco. Salt cod, fished off Newfoundland, was sold in Southern Europe, the boats returning with wine, olive oil and oranges.
During the Napoleonic Wars fireships and bomb vessels, including HMS Terror, famous in polar exploration, were built. Later many North Devonians emigrated to Prince Edward Island, taking their pottery and folk songs with them. Sailing vessels continued to be built and traded here even after steamships became dominant. In World War II a Combined Operations base (HMS Appledore) developed weapons and techniques essential to the success of the D Day invasion of France.